DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Science

Many books have been written to address a supposed conflict between religion and science. Scientists have derided Christian theology and Christian theologians have attacked scientists for being narrow minded. Few attempt to put across underlying considerations.

Why do we need something called a "scientific" method? And why should the findings of this method - which we broadly label "science" - present difficulties for some Christians?

One way of considering the first of these questions is to look at the basis of science and the fundamental way of thinking which powers and directs it. That way of thinking is usually termed the "scientific method".

A good guide is given by Scott Peck in The Different Drum

... what we call the scientific method is a collection of conventions and procedures that have been designed to combat our extraordinary capacity to deceive ourselves in the interest of submission to something higher than our own immediate emotional or intellectual comfort - namely, truth.

Do we deceive ourselves, and if so how? Surely truths are obvious to all? We may disagree amongst ourselves - but surely when anyone is faced by "the truth" it should win the day.

A moment's honest reflection will enable most of us to recall instances when our firm conclusions about the truth of something turned out to be wrong. An appointment for one time turned out to be for another; what we thought was workable turned out to be full of pitfalls; a decision made on good authority turned out to have been totally misguided.

As has been pointed out by many, the so-called scientific age has produced a way of thinking about reality which is fundamentally different from thinking in all previous ages. For example, although some ancient Greeks proposed that the earth circles the sun and that matter is made up of atoms, they didn't arrive at these answers through science. Rather, they first observed nature and then took a guess at how it might work. In so doing they arrived overall at far more false than correct conclusions.

However, our ancestors were not stupid. For instance, the power of steam was discovered by the Greeks some 200 years before Christ. But because slave labour then was much cheaper than the investment required to make steam engines, the latter were never developed. It wasn't until the scientific method and the right social conditions coincided that the industrial revolution could take place and steam come into its own.

At a more obvious level we know how easy it can be to be deceived by visual illusions - the magician's speed of hand fools the eye, objects look larger or smaller depending on perspective, and so on. Anyone who imagines they can think independently of others should note experiments by Solomon Asch which have shown that even our perception of the length of a line can be drastically altered by group pressure.

This and other research shows that our deepest convictions are often not only created by other people, but are so buried as to be beyond our consciousness. They are "doctrines felt as fact". One well known example is the "fact" once held by many in the West that the earth the centre of the universe and that the sun and planets revolve around it. Not until long after Galilei Galileo and Copernicus had used mathematics and the scientific method to show otherwise, did that conviction begin to change for most people.

Similarly, in the 20th century the accepted concept of time, once thought to be an absolute truth (a "doctrine felt as fact"), was revealed by Einstein as mistaken. It was thought then that time is a dimension separate from the three physical dimensions, that time goes along independently of everything else. Einstein's work showed that time is not independent of space. In fact, we experience space/time - that is, a single dimension rather than four separate dimensions. To alter one part of the space/time continuum is to alter all the others.

In terms of belief systems like Christianity (or any other religious system for that matter) it is a truism to observe that far from being uniformly orthodox, they comprise a myriad of differing beliefs. Indeed, so different are perceptions and doctrines within the worldwide Christian Church that it is impossible to talk about a single "Christian" faith.

In contrast with the multiple dimensions and types of Christianity, the scientific method allows us, differing perceptions and all, to agree - albeit sometimes only after considerable investigation and debate. And it is a truism that no scientific "proof" is ever final. Everything about science is open to change. Nevertheless, it is also true that much provisional agreement exists in the scientific community. 

How is this agreement reached? It derives from the strict application  to data of the scientific method - what Scott Peck called "a collection of conventions and procedures". This "method" has its varieties and fashions which change over time. So, for example, the methods used by psychologists find little favour with physicists, who complain that the evidence used is too wishy-washy to be much good. Many procedures used in the 19th century would not do for the 21st.

What follows is a summary of criteria for scientific "truth" [1]:

Rational and logical: A scientific statement is rational if it obeys the laws of logic. They are based on the principle of contradiction (that is, that meaningful language must not be self-contradictory). A statement is rational if it employs mental processes which fully and deeply question its own foundations. Rationality always questions its own assumptions.

Scientific claims are well-defined: Every term and calculation used is as precise as possible. There is no resort to vagueness, and steps in any calculation or argument are not missed out. A scientific claim which lacks clarity isn't worth the paper it's written on.

Any hypothesis put forward is falsifiable: A hypothesis (a proposal to be tested scientifically) must be expressed in terms which can be examined and tested by anyone else. So it's not scientific to assert that "Ghosts can speak" unless actual ghosts can be found and spoken to by anyone, and provided that phenomenon can be put to the test in every possible way.

Any event or statement claimed as scientifically true can be repeated by others: Others can reach the same conclusion by using the identical, well-defined steps which have been set out by the claim. A recent example was the experiment apparently performed by two scientists who claimed that they were able to produce nuclear fusion at room temperatures. Whatever the merits of their experiment, nobody else has been able to consistently and verifiably produce the same results.

Any claim to truth must be opened up and offered for examination: Anyone - and particularly by those who have the skills, equipment and  credentials - must be able to test any claim to truth. Knowledge can only be tested when it is in the public domain. Secret or partially explained truths are by definition excluded from this criterion. So a person claiming to be able to reverse infertility in women (as recently happened in England) must be willing to let the world know how he or she does it.

Any claim to scientific truth containing an unexplained gap must be viewed with suspicion: This criterion applies particularly to claims which are very close to the frontiers of knowledge, or are based on incomplete findings or knowledge. A claim to scientific truth based upon incomplete evidence is automatically dismissed until the gaps are closed.

Any claim to new knowledge requires caution: Before any new claim can be taken too seriously, it must be tested to the full. And if a claim is extraordinary, it must be backed up by extraordinary evidence. The Christian claim that a man once came to life after being dead is perhaps one of the most extraordinary. The slight and sometimes contradictory evidence for this event does not match this criterion.

Objectivity is a requirement: Claims issuing from even the most determined or inspired conviction are not scientific truth. Because any claim is approached with scepticism as a pre-condition, any "truth" must be revised whenever solid evidence contradicts it. All scientific conclusions are necessarily provisional. Thus a claim initially established via "revelation" and then shown to be wrong, brings the means by which it was established into question.

Coincidence is never acceptable as evidence: Events which coincide can be used as evidence only when the coincidence is supported by sound statistics and shown to be the result of more than chance to a high degree of confidence. The fact that you won the lottery on a Friday not a Monday is of no importance unless you can show how you arrived at a link between winning and this particular day of the week.

No anecdote can be accepted as evidence for anything: Anecdotes are not evidence. Conclusions can of course be drawn from a single instance. But such conclusions are not scientific, since [a] they have not been duplicated and [b] they have not been compared with a larger body of evidence (usually using statistical methods). Even if you hear 200 accounts of people having seen six-legged elephants, no such report is scientific until a six-legged elephant is produced.

Richard Dawkins, the well known critic of religion in general and Christianity in particular, writes somewhat more loosely about what he calls a "scientific" approach. This consists of 

... testability, evidential support, precision, quantifiability, intersubjectivity, repeatability, universality, progressiveness, independence of cultural milieu and so on. [2]

These (or criteria very similar to them) are the only way we know of eliminating most human differences of perception, and of blocking our natural tendency to assert our prejudices or to blindly accept what some "authority" tells us. This is not to say that something cannot be true which has not been tested in the above manner. But it is to say that every truth, scientific or not, is open to doubt and may be untrue.

In short, whereas humanity once described the world by using language in a multi-functional way, we have now evolved a language which, for the first time, describes the world powerfully and reasonably accurately. The world has become value-neutral, except when we revert to the ancient use of language once more. When we do that, language takes on a different role, and we inevitably start thinking about the world in a different way. The language of art is one thing; the language of science another. As Don Cupitt puts it, scientific language

... forces us to discriminate about those assertions that are in principle publicly by standard procedures and those which are not. Once made, this is a fateful distinction that forever separates science from everything that - however estimable - is not science. [3]

Today there is a split between Christians who relate to a "history of Jesus" and those who relate to a "Jesus of faith". Broadly speaking, the former construe the world and Jesus through the analytical, scientific lens we call "history". The latter use the ancient, multi-functional language of religion to speak of the way they perceive the Jesus of tradition.

That is, those who look to the history of Jesus recognise that the gospels (virtually our only source of information about Jesus) are the creation of unknown authors whose primary aim was theological and liturgical rather than historical. These authors reshaped their material. Each produced a version of Jesus which allowed them to put across a particular theological portrait. Most striking is John's Gospel, which contains much theology and very little history.

The nature of the gospels requires us to sift carefully through them to find the most probable picture of Jesus "as he really was". We now know that even this is impossible. We have no eye witness accounts of the life of Jesus. We are forced to make do with fragments of very early verbal accounts of what Jesus said and did. 

While these do yield some good history, they don't give us enough to write his biography. Today's historical Jesus is the result of three hundred years of intensive examination of the New Testament. Many think that this stream of knowledge has now run dry. As a result, some theologians are turning to archaeology, sociology and other analytical disciplines. So, for example, we now know how a person was crucified and much about population movements in Palestine before and during the first century. In other words, we are gathering more information with which to back up our biblical knowledge.

Those for whom a Jesus of faith is at the centre of their lives will often acknowledge that the gospels don't contain much good history in the sense of material derived directly from eye witnesses. 

What we do have, they say, turns out to be the witness of many people, some of whom may have known Jesus. All these witnesses were much closer to Jesus than we are. We therefore rely on them and those to whom they passed on their experience to know what Jesus did and said. We should also acknowledge their theology, since it is better informed than ours.

That witness has been passed on to us via the gospels and via the traditions of the Church. Why worry about history when we have such a wealth of good material? they ask.

There is nothing wrong with the latter outlook. Which Jesus is taken on board - the Jesus of history or the Jesus of faith - is a matter of personal choice. The Jesus of history requires a Christian to work with a fragmentary picture. The Jesus of faith has much more material available to the believer.

What may matter - and this is a burning question as the Western Church appears to decline ever more rapidly - is which Jesus is more likely to make sense to the ordinary secular person who is today in the majority in Western countries. 

Some would argue that a Jesus who doesn't make sense to the modern mind, who alienates people by appearing irrelevant, might as well be passed by. Christians are bound to fashion their own lives as best they may on what little good history they have about Jesus. Tradition may be right and useful. But when it's not, it can be discarded. The real point is to relate to the Jesus who actually lived as we do and who did and said certain things.

Others argue that we can trust two thousand years of experience. Faith in the Jesus of the gospels, given all the analysis and qualifications, is perfectly valid and desirable. If we want to know how to live as Christians, we have the wisdom of millennia to call upon.

To sum up: There is in principle no conflict between the scientific method and the method of faith. They are merely two different ways of construing the world around us.

But when those who live by primarily faith insist that events in the gospels (for instance) "really happened" because they have faith, those who prefer the scientific method are right to protest. 

The statement, "I know that Jesus walked on water because I have faith that he's the Son of God and he could therefore do anything" may seem a crude thing to say. In essence it is what many Christians do say - although the argument is cloaked by many words.

On the other hand, people of faith are right to demand that those who use the scientific method to construe the world don't draw conclusions which are outside the scope of that method.

The statement that, "There is no life after death because science shows that this is impossible" is also a crude version of a popular argument. But its essence is reflected in many versions of scientism - that is, of the ideology which claims that science yields the only true answers in life.

Faith as the choice to venture oneself on that basis of trust in God is perfectly compatible with the scientific method. And the scientific method as a way of gaining agreement about the nature of our world does not clash with trust that our world is meaningful.
___________________________________________________
[1] The above guidelines were adapted from Science Versus Pseudo-Science  
by Nathan Asseng, Franklin Watts, NY, 1994
[2] A Devil's Chaplain p.45
[3] Taking Leave of God, SCM Classics, 2001

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